Differential patterns of amygdala and ventral striatum activation predict gender-specific changes in sexual risk behavior

Elizabeth C. Victor, Alexandra A. Sansosti, Hilary C. Bowman, Ahmad R. Hariri

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

22 Scopus citations


Although the initiation of sexual behavior is common among adolescents and young adults, some individuals express this behavior in a manner that significantly increases their risk for negative outcomes including sexually transmitted infections. Based on accumulating evidence, we have hypothesized that increased sexual risk behavior reflects, in part, an imbalance between neural circuits mediating approach and avoidance in particular as manifest by relatively increased ventral striatum (VS) activity and relatively decreased amygdala activity. Here, we test our hypothesis using data from seventy 18- to 22-year-old university students participating in the Duke Neurogenetics Study. We found a significant three-way interaction between amygdala activation, VS activation, and gender predicting changes in the number of sexual partners over time. Although relatively increased VS activation predicted greater increases in sexual partners for both men and women, the effect in men was contingent on the presence of relatively decreased amygdala activation and the effect in women was contingent on the presence of relatively increased amygdala activation. These findings suggest unique gender differences in how complex interactions between neural circuit function contributing to approach and avoidance may be expressed as sexual risk behavior in young adults. As such, our findings have the potential to inform the development of novel, gender-specific strategies that may be more effective at curtailing sexual risk behavior.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)8896-8900
Number of pages5
JournalJournal of Neuroscience
Issue number23
StatePublished - 2015


  • Amygdala
  • Reward
  • Sexual risk behavior
  • Threat
  • Ventral striatum
  • Young adults

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Medicine(all)


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